Wednesday 30 October 2013

Review - Dracula

Dracula teeth

Designed by Michael Rieneck
Published by Rio Grande Games (Kosmos Line)
For 2 players, aged 12 to adult

Dracula board game
The eye-catching box.

Halloween is fast approaching, so I thought it was time to tell a scary story...

Once upon a time there was a young man who lived in a small flat all by himself. The flat was part of a converted inn, and was home to more than one ghost. Doors would bang at night, lights would come on, and dark phantasms swirled through the young man's dreams.

One day, the young man met a young woman. They quickly became friends, and soon after became something more... Within three months of their first date, they had rented a huge house together, and the young man was finally free of his haunted flat. Unfortunately, renting a large house did not leave the young couple with very much money, so they spent a lot of evenings at home.

Neither the young man, nor the young woman, were particularly fond of television, so they were always looking for other things to pass the time.

One day, the young man said, 'Hey. When I was younger I used to really like board games. Maybe we should get some board games.'

The young woman agreed that it sounded like a good idea, and a few days later a suspicious brown box arrived in the post. Inside: a two-player game called Dracula.

Dracula is a beautifully produced, and beautifully designed, game of deduction, bluffing, and hand management. The concept is simple. One player is Van Helsing, and the other player is the titular night-time menace. Drac has arrived by ship in London, and has begun hiding his coffins in various locations; Van the Man is on the hunt, but at the same time, he is trying to protect the citizens Drac wants to bite.

Dracula board game - Dracula and Van Helsin meeples
Guess who...

So, what you have is an incredibly tense game of cat and mouse, played out over a simple 4x3 grid. In each space will be a face down card (either a card from Van Helsing's hand, or a card from Dracula's hand). On a turn, a player can choose how many spaces to move his cute little wooden meeple on the board, and as he does, he can look at the cards he lands on. If the card is one of his, he can swap it (or pretend to swap it) with a card from his hand. If it isn't one of his cards, he encounters it, which often means having a fight.

Dracula board game - the board
The board - you don't need it, but it's lovely.

Each player has three types of cards: Five objectives (Van Helsing has victim cards, Drac has coffin cards), one special object (if revealed by your opponent, your opponent loses a life instantly), and nine allies. Allies are obviously the most likely sort of card you will encounter, and they represent vampire hunters or vampires. They each have a strength value, and when they are revealed, you have to play a card from a second hand of cards to defeat them...

Wait... What? Didn't I mention the second hand of cards?

Dracula - action cards
Action cards.

Okay. You see, in this game, you have to carefully manage two hands of cards. The first hand comprises the encounter cards that get played on the board (as already mentioned). You also get a deck of ten larger action cards. At the start of the game you draw five, and then once you have used all five, you get the other five. After that, you shuffle them together and draw a new hand of five, and so on...

These larger cards add real meat of the game. Each one has four elements: A movement value, an attack strength, a barrier, and (usually) a special power. On your turn, once you have stopped moving, or have been forced to stop moving by encountering one of your opponent's allies, you need to play one of the larger cards from your hand. You need to play a card with a movement value that matches the number of spaces you moved (otherwise you take damage), you also need to play a card with a strength value that will enable you to defeat the ally. Of course, the cards with the highest movement value tend to have the lowest attack strength, so you have to balance speed with strength. Nice, clever stuff.

Most of the cards will also show a barrier colour, and this allows you to place (or move) a barrier on the board. These barriers are impassable, and can be used to block your opponent from reaching certain locations.

Finally, most cards have a cool power, allowing you to take extra turns, or move your piece, or regain health.

So, going in turns, players will move to one or more locations, revealing and swapping cards, moving barriers, and generally trying to create as much confusion for their opponent as possible. But what's the point? The point is those objective cards I mentioned before. If at any point you have found all five of your opponent's objective cards, or you can prove that the only objectives left are in your opponent's hand rather than on the board (achieved by landing on your opponent's space and showing each other your hands of cards), you win.

Dracula is a very clever little game. It plays out in around half an hour, on a tiny grid, and has a very limited set of rules; and yet it offers some surprisingly deep gameplay. Bluffing and deduction play a big part of it: You need to keep swapping cards on the board, forcing your opponent to return to locations over and over again. You need to know when to place an objective on the board, and when to keep it in hand (where it is slightly safer). But there is also a second game layered over the deduction game, and in that game you are managing a limited amount of resources: Action cards. You have to carefully plan when you want to move a large number of spaces, and when you want to move cautiously. You need to keep in mind which allies you have killed, and hold on to a strong enough action card to kill any that are left.

Dracula - encounter cards
Encounter cards.

What is great about this second layer of gaming goodness, which is drizzled all over the deduction game like cream on pumpkin pie, is the fact it helps to level the playing field. I am not good at deduction games, but I am pretty good at resource management and card games. If you can kill an opponent's ally, you get to replace it with a card of your own. This makes it more dangerous for your opponent to move around, forcing more fights that might end with your opponent taking damage. If your opponent takes four lots of damage, you win. In other words, if you are confronted with a master of bluffing, you can just beat the snot out of him or her instead.

After the young man had played several games of Dracula with the young woman, he packed it up and put it on the book shelf. 'That was good fun,' he said.

'Yeah,' the young woman said. And then it was as if a dark spirit crept into the room, possessing the young couple.

The young man shivered, as if a window in his soul had been opened, allowing him a brief glimpse of his future. 'We should get more games,' he said.

Nine years later, the young man is no longer so young. He lives in a slightly smaller house that he owns rather than rents. The bookcase with a single board game on it has become three bookcases, crammed with over 150 games and expansions. And board games have become an integral part of his character.

He even writes a blog about them.

And the young woman? She is now his wife, and the mother of his daughter.

And sometimes, just sometimes, they still play Dracula.

Spooky, huh?

Thursday 24 October 2013

Review - A Shepherd and His Dog

A Shepherd and His Dog

A Shepherd and His Dog
Designed by John Spittle
Published by Spear's Games
For 2 players, aged 6 to adult

A Shepherd and His Dog
Let the terror commence...

Halloween is just around the corner, so in the spirit (ha ha) of the holiday, I thought I would try to put a few spooky reviews on my blog over the next week. And what better way to start then a game about Freddy Krueger, and his nefarious night-time exploits?

Here's the story so far: Little Timmy has been put to bed. Because he couldn't sleep, he counted sheep. He has now drifted off, leaving himself wide open to attack from Freddy, the hideously disfigured dreamland pervert. The only problem is, Timmy's dreams are chock full of all the sheep he had to count before he dozed off, and they keep getting in the way. Before Freddy can get busy with the slicing and dicing, he needs to deal with those pesky fluff balls. As Freddy is a dream architect, he can manifest anything he wants to assist him, so he creates a slavering wolf, and a pen to round the sheep into.

The game is afoot. Or maybe a severed head.

I dunno.

Okay, okay. I'll confess. A Shepherd and His Dog isn't a horror game. It isn't a game about Freddy Krueger.

But it is a game about rounding up sheep into a pen.

A Shepherd and His Dog - sheep
The horror! The horror!

So, if that's the case, why am I featuring it in my Halloween special?

The answer is simple. When I thought about the most horrifying experience I have ever had as a gamer... When I thought about the most terrifying way imaginable to spend my time... I thought of A Shepherd and His Dog.

This is a strategy game where one person plays a shepherd with his trusty four-legged friend, and the other person plays as a flock of five sheep. There are little, pre-painted plastic playing pieces to represent all these characters, but the paint jobs are pretty bad. My shepherd really does look like Freddy Krueger.

A Shepherd and His Dog - shepherd
Freddy Krueger.

I'm pretty sure that the playing pieces are actually old Britain's toys, because I know I had exactly the same set of toys when I was little. It was a nice bit of nostalgia to see these old pieces; but that was about the only thing I liked about the whole sorry mess of a game.

Each head-to-head contest is played out on a hexagonal board. You place little plastic fences at one end to create a pen with five spaces, and there are two open gates printed in the bottom corners. The shepherd player is trying to round up all five sheep to herd them into the pen, while the sheep player is trying to get at least one sheep through one of the two open gates. (Seriously, farmers; shut your gates. It's common sense.)

A Shepherd and His Dog - the dog
Nice doggie.

From that description, the game sounds like something I would enjoy. I am fond of Fox and Geese, and Thud, and I have wanted a nice copy of Tafl for my games collection for a while now. A Shepherd and His Dog seems to fit nicely into that same category of two player asymmetric games.

But I don't enjoy this game.

In fact, I have trouble thinking of this as a game, because it pretty much plays itself. Players take it in turns to move one piece. The shepherd player moves Freddy or his wolf, while the sheep player gets to move one sheep. Sheep are not allowed to move next to the shepherd or dog, and MUST move away if they are adjacent at the start of the turn. This is the mechanism by which the shepherd player will round up the sheep. Basically, the shepherd or dog moves next to a sheep. The sheep player is then forced to move that sheep (if possible). This usually means the sheep has a choice of between one and three spaces to move to. The shepherd then moves adjacent, forcing the sheep to move again, and so on. There are almost no choices to make, and very few ways to break away from the shepherd player, who is always able to move adjacent to the sheep on his following turn.

Eventually, a sheep will get penned, and suddenly (for the first time), the sheep player will be free to pick any sheep to move. The sheep closest to an open gate will be selected, and there will be a mad dash as the sheep moves in a straight line to that gate, and the shepherd or dog runs to intercept. However, blocking a gate is exceptionally easy (as sheep cannot move next to a shepherd or dog), and once the interception has been made, the sheep will be forced back into the same pattern of being pushed towards the pen.

You then repeat this process until all five sheep are in the pen.

And that's it.

It is so repetitive. So boring. So maddeningly infuriating. So pointless.

It is probably the worst game I have ever played. And I've played the Chaotic trading card game.

A Shepherd and His Dog - the board
The board, with fences in place to create the pen.

The biggest problem is that it is a strategy game that takes away your chances to use strategy. Most of your moves are forced upon you, and there is nothing you can do about it. It becomes a mundane experience, as you simply move your piece into pre-defined spaces. There is maybe one in every five turns where you get to make a proper decision. The real choices are so rare that you become bored and disinterested, your brain switches off completely, and you start to miss the choices even when they do present themselves.

I suppose it is fitting that a game about herding mindless sheep should be so mindless; but this is one of those occasions when it would have dramatically improved the game if it was a bit less thematic.

And that's not something you hear me say very often.

Besides, if I'm going to play something about a horde of mindless creatures, I'm probably going to choose something with zombies in it.

That would have made for a better Halloween review too...

Friday 18 October 2013

Review - Hanabi


Designed by Antoine Bauza.
Published by ABACUSSPIELE (and many others).
For 2 to 5 players, aged 8 to adult.

Games like Hanabi make me glad that I don't do video reviews; because, if I did, I am sure I would offend someone with my pronunciation. (I pronounce Hanabi like wasabi, by the way.)

But the pronunciation of the name is only where the problems start with this game; because Hanabi is evil. I mean, pure, distilled malice. In a deck of cards.

I should explain.

Hanabi isn't like anything else I've ever played. And that's a good thing. The concept is incredibly simple, and also language independent. As a result, I was able to buy and play the ABACUSSPIELE edition, which is entirely in German, and I only downloaded a set of English rules online so I could understand how to include the "Colours" expansion (which I'll get to in a minute).

In the small box, you get a deck of cards, and a small punchboard of tokens. The deck comprises five suits of colours, with numbers ranging from one to five. Each suit has three ones, two twos, two threes, two fours, and a single five. The aim of the game is simple: Lay out five sets of five different coloured cards, each in order from one to five.

That sounds easy, right?

Yeah. Right. I did mention this game was evil, didn't I? I mean the kind of evil that normally gets awoken by reciting passages of forbidden lore from dusty old spell books while sitting in a pentangle.

We're talking Justin Bieber levels of evil.

Hanabi card game
Evil in a box.

You see, each player in the game will be dealt a hand of cards, but... And here's the rub... You aren't allowed to look at your cards. Instead, you hold your cards so you can only see the backs, but everyone else at the table can see the fronts. Honestly, just conditioning yourself to draw a card from the deck without looking at it is enough to fry your brain; and I've lost count of the number of times people have drawn a card and then gone to look at it, only for everyone else to shout "STOP!" It is an unusual game mechanism that really does take some getting used to.

Okay, so you have a hand of cards you can't see; but you can see the cards that everyone else has. Now, you have to work together to put out the five sets of five different colours. That's right: You are going to work together, because this is a co-operative game. It's co-operative in the truest sense of the term. You won't do your own thing most of the time, but then occasionally do something to help another player. Every move you make is totally integrated into a team effort; and yes, if you are bad at this game you will tank your team's efforts. And they will hate you.

On your turn, you have a choice of three actions, and you have to do one of them. The first thing you can do is play a card. You take the card from your hand, and either start a new set, or add to an existing set, before drawing a new card to replace the one you used. Of course, you have to put out numbers in order (without any gaps in the sequence), and you can't put out two identical cards (colour and number). If you reveal a card you can't play, the card is discarded, and the whole team loses a "life." If you end up discarding a card you will need later (like any card with the number five), you won't be able to score the maximum points anymore; and if you lose three "lives," it's game over completely.

That being the case, guessing what card to play is a bad idea. That's where the second action comes in. The team has a certain number of clue tokens they can use. On your turn, you can flip a token over to indicate it has been used, and then you can give any other player one clue about the cards that he or she has. You can point to all the cards of a certain number and tell the player what number they are, or you can point to all the cards of a certain colour, and tell the player what colour they are. The only rules are that if you are giving information about a number or colour, you have to point out ALL the cards that match that number or colour, and you can't openly tell someone exactly what a card is, or where it should be played.

Hanabi cards
Oh yeah, this game is about fireworks... Whatever.

The biggest problem with clues is that you don't get very many of them, and if you don't have any clue tokens left, you can't give anymore clues. Being economical with your clues is important. You have to really think about the information you are giving. For example, if a green one has been played, and someone has the green two, you might want to let that person know the card can be played. But how? If it is the only green card in that player's hand, you could point to it and say it is green, hoping that he or she will take this as a hint that this is the next green card required. Of course, he or she may not be on your wavelength, and may not realise what you are trying to say.


I mean really infuriating. After the third or fourth clue you have wasted trying to get a player to put down a certain card, you will want to vault the table to strangle someone.

Luckily, there is a way to get clue tokens back. On your turn, instead of playing a card or using a clue, you can simply discard a card. You put the card face up, so everyone can see it, and then draw a replacement. Discarding a card is risky, and often you will be forced to do it because you don't know enough about your cards to play one, and you don't have any clue tokens to use.

Realising you have to discard a card is a horrifying moment. You will agonise over the decision; because if you discard a five you immediately tank your chances of finishing the game with a perfect score. However, discarding is a necessary evil. Not only does it give you another clue to play with, it also gives all the players more information to work with. The more cards there are on the table (either discarded, or played into sets), the easier it is to work out what you have in your hand based on the clues other people give you, and what you can see in other players' hands.

Hanabi tokens
Clue and life tokens.

So that's the game. If you get all five sets of cards out, you win. If you lose all three lives, you lose. If you survive the whole game, but you discarded or lost cards that meant you couldn't finish one or more sets, you sort of win (you win, but you don't get a perfect score).

It's simple. Elegant, even. It's so infuriating it will make your blood boil. It will turn your brain to mush if you play it for too long. It will strain friendships. It will crush you.

It's basically genius.

Evil genius.

You will hate it when it's your turn, because you will never feel like you have any clue tokens, you will never feel like you know enough about your cards to play one, and you will never feel like you can safely discard something. It's a punishing, brutal, gruelling experience. And it is an absolute triumph.

I love the game. But here's the thing: I haven't played it properly yet. I'm not sure I would enjoy it so much if I did play it properly.

Technically, the only communication between players should be the giving of the clues. The rest of the time, players are supposed to sit quietly, and they aren't supposed to do anything that could help to guide another player's actions.

It's virtually impossible. Indeed, the game lends itself wonderfully to "accidental cheating," like facial expressions, suppressed gasps, eye-rolling, teeth-sucking, and sub-conscious tapping of certain cards, as well as "creative cheating," like thinking "out loud" in an effort to get a reaction from someone else at the table.

Those little cheats make the game absolutely hilarious. Of course, cheating makes the game easier, and you shouldn't go out of your way to ruin the game with obvious hints all the time; but the occasional cough or splutter at the right time can be priceless, as can springing a question on another player about the cards in your hand and then trying to read that player's poker face. In our games, there is so much laughter (between the groans and curses), and it only gets funnier the harder we try not to break the rules. Sitting around in silence staring at our cards just doesn't feel like the right way to play the game.

And if you do find yourself occasionally "bending" the rules, you can introduce the included colours expansion to make things tougher. This is an additional set of cards that are multi-coloured. They count as their own suit that you need to complete, but also count as every other colour when giving clues. So, if you are telling someone they have red cards, you also have to point to the multi-coloured ones as well. That should throw a decent sized spanner in the works.

Overall, the game is a wonderful way to spend time with friends. If you play it properly, you get a real brain-burning co-operative game that could result in someone coming to physical harm. If you play with people who find it difficult to keep quiet, the game becomes something completely different again. I don't recall ever laughing so hard while playing a game as I did when I first introduced Hanabi to my gaming group. It was something completely new, and completely refreshing. It made us rethink what co-operative games really are, and what working as a team really means.

I guess it is only fitting that a game that forces you to look only at the backs of your cards should force you to look at card games in a new way.

Thursday 17 October 2013

Review - Don't Worry! (aka Parcheesi)

Don't Worry!

Don't Worry!
Published by Oaze.
For 2-4 players, aged 5 to adult (or 2 to adult in my house).

I am far from being a snob when it comes to board games. I don't turn my nose up at dumb games like Dungeon! and I am usually happier crawling through a dungeon in search of treasure than I am matching wits with someone in a game of Chess (although I do love Chess too). While my preference is definitely for thematic games, my collection is actually pretty diverse. Ingenious sits next to Kingdom Builder which sits next to Zombicide which sits next to Lords of Waterdeep which sits next to Gears of War. Anyway, you get the idea...

Despite my "come one, come all" attitude, there are still a few games that make me shudder: Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, Monopoly, all the usual suspects. Parcheesi is actually one of the games that fits into that "shuddery" category. It just isn't a game I would have in my collection through choice.

However, it is a game I own.

You see, it was my birthday back in June (I was 21 again), and my daughter (who is two years old) had picked a present for me. She had chosen it herself while she was out shopping with my wife. She had chosen it because it was big, bright, and "a game for Daddy."

She had chosen Don't Worry! A version of Parcheesi  released by a German company called Oaze.

Yeah. Parcheesi.

It is obvious to see why this version of the classic game caught the eye of a two year old. The box is huge, the colours are vibrant, and the playing pieces are an absolute joy. I mean really, just look at the pictures of them.

Don't Worry! playing pieces

Don't Worry! playing pieces

Don't Worry! playing pieces

Don't Worry! playing pieces

I admit, I was impressed with the look of the game. Laying out the board is like laying out the background for a cartoon, and the animal playing pieces are really chunky (I am a sucker for a game that comes with nice toys). Even the dice is huge. It is clearly a game designed for little hands, and in terms of production quality it is a triumph.

But it's still Parcheesi. It has attractive playing pieces, but it's still the same old rules that I dislike (presented in an ugly rules leaflet).

Don't Worry! rules
Dense text, dumb rules.

But a few days after my birthday, something happened. I had left the game in the lounge, and while I was working, my daughter pulled on my sleeve to get my attention. She pointed to the box, and said "I want that, please."

I took the game out of the box and laid everything on the floor, and then (knees creaking in protest), I got down on the floor too. I thought my daughter just wanted to play with the cute animal pieces, but to my surprise she picked up the dice, rolled it, counted the pips, and then moved a playing piece.


She didn't want to play with the animals. She wanted to PLAY.

That first time, we got through about a quarter of a game (playing slightly simplified rules) before she got bored. Since then, we have played the game on a regular basis. We still haven't got to the point where one of us has got a full set of playing pieces "home," but we get a little closer each time.

Don't Worry! board
The Don't Worry! board.

No. This hasn't changed my opinion of Parcheesi. I still don't think it's a very good game. But it is a game that I can play with my daughter. And any game that enables me to spend more time with her deserves a place in my game collection.

Sunday 13 October 2013

Review - Dungeon! (2012 Edition)

Dungeon! board game

Published by Wizards of the Coast
Designed by a whole bunch of people
For 1 to 8 players, aged 8 to adult

I tend to spend a lot of time writing about old board games. I mean, out of production, sometimes obscure, games. The kind of games you might find in your attic, tucked between that box of He-Man figures and your old Transformers comics.

The problem with reviewing that kind of game is not a lot of people are all that interested. Often, it feels like no-one is reading this stuff, and I really am just talking to myself. Now don't get me wrong, I write about these games because I love them, and I love writing. I never thought these reviews would get me fame, the love of the masses, the amorous advances of beautiful women, or free board games. And to be honest, I'm not sure my wife would appreciate it if I started receiving amorous advances anyway...

Free games would be nice though.

So I write these reviews, because these are the reviews I like to write. Occasionally, I will write a review about something current; but generally, I prefer to blow the cobwebs off old classics to give them a bit of the attention they deserve.

But sometimes a company will get the rights to an old board game, revamp it, and re-release it. When that happens, I get to write about something old, that is also something new. Today (O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!), I get to write about Dungeon!

Dungeon! board game box
I could frame this box art. I am that geeky.

Now, I'm going to get this out of the way up front: This game is crap.

Really. It's crap.

Only... It's not crap. It's not crap at all. It's actually a little work of genius. It is a game that I always had fond memories of, and when I got to play this new edition, it lived up to those memories.

But it is crap. I mean, seriously. It has an exclamation point in the title. How many good games have an exclamation point in the title?

(Okay. Quite a few. Don't bother listing them.)

I had wanted a copy of Dungeon! for my vault for a long time. It had been released multiple times in the past, under slightly different names, and I wasn't really fussed which edition I had. I just wanted a copy because I used to play New Dungeon as a child, and I wanted to relive those adventures. I would regularly check the charity shops, and I always had my eye on lots on eBay; but I never found a copy, and I never won any of my bids. Then, Wizards of the Coast announced a re-release, and what a beautiful re-release it is.

Purchasing the new edition really is a no-brainer. In the UK, you can pick it up for about £10. That's less than I've paid for some card games, and certainly less than I would have paid for an old copy on eBay. Better still, Wizards didn't mess with the game. They brought it up to date with gorgeous new art, but they remained faithful to the design. It's a shame other companies don't do the same thing (looking at you Fantasy Flight Games).

You really do get a lot for your money. A nice mounted board representing the dungeon, teeny tiny cards for monsters and treasure (anyone who has played an older edition of the game will know how small the cards are), tokens, dice, and cardboard stand-ups for the heroes. Everything looks wonderful, and when it is set up, it really doesn't look like a game that costs less than the price of a cinema ticket.

Dungeon! heroes
Intrepid (soon to be dead) heroes.

But a low price point and good artwork isn't really reason enough to buy a game, so what else does Dungeon! offer?

What the game offers is the distillation of every dungeon-crawling experiencing you've ever had. It gives you a hero, a dice, and a dungeon filled with monsters.

And treasure.

The game really couldn't be any simpler. You have a hero, and you go into the dungeon in search of treasure. In every room you will flip a card to find a monster, and then you kill that monster and loot its corpse. Grim goings on, for sure; but really, this is exactly what you are doing in any game of this sort. Killing monsters, and taking their stuff.

Dungeon! strips down this experience to the bare bones. Most of the heroes don't have special powers, and most of the treasure you find will just count towards the total treasure you need to be classed the winner (each type of hero has a different amount to collect).

Dungeon! rules
The rules... There really aren't a lot of them.

A large amount of the game comes down to dice rolling. When you enter a room, you flip a card. Most of the time, this card will show a monster. You then roll two dice in an attempt to kill the monster. The value you need to roll depends on the monster, and the hero you are using. For example, the knight may need to roll a seven to kill an ogre, while a rogue needs to roll a ten. If you win the fight, you take a treasure card. It might be a magic sword, but normally it will just be a jewel or a sack of coins that gets added to your victory total. Of course, if you fail to kill the monster, it will attack you, and depending on how the dice roll, you may lose a treasure, miss a turn, be pushed out of the room, or outright killed.

Just... killed. Instantly.

It's brutal. And it's brilliant. It's brilliant because every roll of the dice matters. Every roll of the dice is loaded with tension. There is no such thing as a "sure thing." You might have a magic sword, and you might be fighting the weakest monster in the dungeon; but with bad dice rolls, you are still going to die, forcing you to start over from scratch. But if you don't fight, you won't ever get any treasure. If you don't put your neck on the line, you won't win. You are constantly forced to face horrible, hungry beasties for the sake of a few coins; and you will fail. A lot.

And there is nothing you can do about it.

Dungeon! board
The board - conveniently colour-coded to make the dangerous spots obvious.

And that's why the game is crap. You have such a small amount of control over what you can do. Yes, there are a few simple strategies. For example, the stronger characters can hoover up all the treasure in the low-scoring rooms in order to force weaker characters to face stronger monsters (so they die more often); and you can follow characters around, hoping they will die and drop items for you to collect. But generally, the only strategy is to hit as many rooms as possible, as soon as possible. This is a race. This is not a deep, tactical game. This is a game where you play the odds by rolling the dice as often as possible. And keeping your fingers crossed.

And that's why the game is brilliant. It's so simple, anyone can play it. I proved this last Christmas, when I set the game up for my parents (who are both retired). There is no way I could play something like Descent with them; but they had no problem with Dungeon! They even had fun. They were laughing when people failed dice rolls and lost their treasure, and they were groaning when they flipped over a monster card to find a dragon.

They laughed, I laughed.

We were all laughing, making fun of each other, and just enjoying being together around a table.

And that's what happens when you play good games. Even when they're crap.

Thursday 10 October 2013

Review - Dark World

Dark World

Dark World
Designed by Eamon Bloomfield
Published by Waddingtons
For 2 to 5 players, aged 10 to adult

The other day I was talking about stories. I explained how, when I play a game, I'm not playing to beat someone. I'm not playing to prove my intellect. I am playing so that I can sit down with people I love (or at least tolerate) and create stories. That's why I'm such a big fan of games with a strong theme. And frankly, there aren't many games that look more thematic than Dark World. A game with components that are so dripping with theme you expect them to play a tune when you open the box (a dark ominous tune, played on a pipe organ by a guy in a mask).

Dark World was very much a product of its time. It was released in 1992, when board game designers were doing everything they could to keep people interested in dice and cards. That meant lots of games were being released with a ridiculous amount of chrome (read "toys"). Unfortunately for Dark World, it missed the boat a bit. The incredible HeroQuest had been released three years earlier, setting a benchmark that few games could hope to match. Not that they weren't trying. Dark World was released into a market that was soon to be stuffed to the gills with dragon-slaying goodness, including the obscenely fun Legend of Zagor, and the much-maligned but surprisingly awesome Dragon Strike.

Dark World put up a brave fight in the face of better games, and even had two expansions (which are actually good games in their own right). Those expansions were Dark World: Village of Fear and Dark World: Dragon's Gate (I'll talk about those another time).

Dark World games
The full set. Awesome.

Put simply, Dark World was good, and it tried really hard to be great; but the competition was fierce. Most people never got to hear that theme tune, which is a shame, because it wasn't a bad little ditty.

But enough rambling, let's talk about what Dark World has to offer.

Well... What it offers is adventure. What it offers is a clutch of nicely moulded miniatures representing heroes and monsters (the heroes even have interchangeable weapons). What it offers is an entire three-dimensional dungeon.

What it offers, is stories.

And actually, a slightly more interesting rule set than you might suspect...

Dark World rules
Rules - showing the board set up.

You and up to four friends each select a hero, give him a basic grey weapon, a hand of three cards from the "hit/miss" deck, and then you set off into the dungeon. You're all working towards the same goal: Killing another one of your friends, who will be playing the awesomely named Korak the Cobran Nemesis (dum dum DUM), who is ruler of the dungeon, and master of its evil inhabitants. But here's the thing, while the heroes are all trying to kill the bad guy, they are not necessarily working together. They keep track of their own points (for killing monsters and gathering loot), and there will only be one overall winner. That's right, this is an early example of a comperative (?) game. It's all for one, and one for himself. After all, if you are going to overthrow an evil tyrant, you want to make sure you get the most credit for doing it.

But how do the heroes go about winning the day?

Each turn, a hero can take three actions, and each action is a movement of one space or a single attack.

Wait. Hold on.

No roll and move?



Heroes move through the oh-so-cool three-dimensional rooms until they reach an oh-so-cool plastic door that is on real hinges and really opens in such an oh-so-cool kind of way. And once the door is open, the proverbial really hits the fan.

Dark World - knight in action
The knight finds a magic hammer... and some new friends.

Each room has a number printed on it. This number represents the total strength of the monsters that the bad guy can spawn in that room. Each monster has a value printed under the base, which is kept secret from the heroes. The bad guy selects up to two monsters to place in the room, with total strength less than the printed value on the room. The bad guy can select weak monsters if he wants, or he can use the strongest possible combo possible. He could even place a single weak monster to make the heroes think that the monster is stronger than it really is.

Wait. Hold on.

Bluffing? Genuine decisions for the bad guy?



Monsters spring out of the shadows, your heroes prepare for battle. If a hero has a basic grey weapon, he rolls two dice when fighting, but if he has found a golden magical weapon he rolls three. These are really nice custom dice, with sides showing blanks, one sword, or two swords. Each sword represents a hit.

After rolling, a hero adds up his hits. He can now play hit cards if he has them. Each card played adds one hit.

So, you're in a room with a single orc and you have rolled four swords. The room has a printed strength of five, so the orc could have a strength of five (meaning you need five hits). But maybe the bad guy was bluffing? Maybe this orc is just a sentry with no real combat experience. Maybe he's a runt who got left behind because he was too weak to keep up with the rest. You have one valuable hit card in your hand... What do you do?

Dark World hit and miss cards
Hit and miss cards.

Shouting your battle cry (which in my group is something like "Tea, no sugar, please!") you throw down your hit card, and then you secretly check the base of the monster (because you don't want those other heroes to know what you know). The base strength of the orc is a one. You wasted your card, the bad guy laughs.

But as you casually slide the orc off the end of your sword, a small glass bottle slips from its hand and rolls across the cobbles. What's this? A healing potion.

Yes, like all good dungeon-crawling games, looting the dead is a prerequisite for victory. Each monster will drop a healing potion, some magic boots, or a grenade (!). All one-use items, and all incredibly useful. The best thing: They are represented with cute little plastic miniatures that clip into the bases of the monsters, so you can see in advance what loot you will get when you kill something.

So, wait. Hold on.

Dice rolling, push-your-luck, bluffing based combat? The ability to target the monster that gives you the loot you need? Grenades!



After you have finished an attack, the monster gets to fight back in the same way (if it's not dead, of course). The bad guy rolls two dice and adds up hits. The hero can then play miss cards to reduce the number of hits. The remainder i deducted from the hero's hit points, and are recorded by rotating the hero's clicky base.

Wait. What? Clicky base?

Yeah. Hit points for heroes are recorded with a Heroclix style click base.

Dark World dwarf
Clicky bases are cool.



Once all the heroes have activated, the bad guy gets a go. Korak gets three actions with each visible monster, and if there are more than a couple of monsters, the heroes are in a world of pain.

Korak the Cobran Nemesis
Korak the Cobran Nemesis.

And then, the echoing clash of steel on steel dies down. The barbarian and the dwarf exchange a nervous glance. They've faced tougher monsters before, but there is something else... Something wrong with this place. The hairs on the back of their necks stand up, and the haunter silently glides through the chamber, stealing the life force of any hero or monster unlucky enough to get in its path.

Yeah. There are spooky goings on in this dungeon, and I don't just mean all the skeletons and mummies shambling around the place. The haunter is a very cool Grim Reaper type character. At the end of each of the bad guy's turns, a dice is rolled, and the haunter will fly along the board following a path dictated by that dice roll. Anything it touches dies instantly. Luckily, heroes regenerate, and the worst that happens is they lose a bit of ground by being sent back to the starting space (where there also happens to be a handy teleporter to get them back into the thick of the action quickly).

After the haunter has done his thing, a new turn begins. The awesomely named and oh-so-cool "Mace of Chaos" (a big, plastic rattle) is given a good shake, and the order of the coloured balls inside it dictate the order in which the heroes will move in the new round. Then it's back into the fray for more of the same...

I guess that's basically how the game plays out. The heroes advance, they fight some monsters, they find treasure chests that contain magical weapons that make them better at fighting monsters, they occasionally die and get respawned, and then, eventually, they make it to the awesome three-dimensional tower at the end of the board, where there is an epic showdown with Korak and his pet manticore. It's all quite simple really.

Dark World castle
The final showdown.

And that's the major problem with the game. It's quite simple.

Too simple.

There are some really interesting game mechanisms in the design, but they just aren't layered enough.

Take, for example, the four heroes you can pick from. They look different, but in the game they all work in exactly the same way. Same hit points, same number of actions, same number of attack dice. No special powers.

Take, for example, the starting grey weapons you can pick from and slot into the hands of your totally generic hero. They look different, but in the game they all work in exactly the same way.

Take, for example, the magic golden weapons you can find in oh-so-cool plastic chests that open on real hinges in an oh-so-cool kind of way. Those weapons look different, but guess what? They all work in exactly the same way. It isn't even necessary for each hero to find a specific golden weapon to use. Any weapon will do.

And then there are the monsters. Skeletons, mummies, orcs, and ogres. A beautiful, horrible wave of merciless dungeon denizens that want to rip your throat out... by rolling two combat dice at a time. Yeah. It doesn't matter what kind of monster you are facing. An orc works the same way as every other creature. There are no special powers, no variable attack strengths. Nothing.


Ogres and Orcs - Dark World

And that's a real shame. The game has so much chrome you might go blind when you open the box, but none of that chrome got applied to the rules. It's almost like half a job. The rules are good. They actually solve a lot of problems that rules for these sorts of games often have (roll and move, limited combat choices, nothing for the bad guy to do). The game isn't even scenario based, so is technically more replayable than something like Heroquest.

But you won't replay it.

Not as much as you should. Not as much as you want to.

Because this is a game that does tell stories. Stories of adventure. Stories of heroes fighting impossible odds. Stories of monsters and ghosts and evil tyrants.

But almost all of those stories will be exactly the same.

Dark World game
That knight's in trouble...

Before you go, I also wanted to mention a little curio I've heard about but never seen. It turns out that, a few years ago, this game got rereleased. It was completely reskinned with the Chaotic brand, looked completely different; but most of the mechanisms and board design from the original game were preserved. I would love to get a copy of this retheme so I can do a good comparison. If anyone in the UK has a complete copy they might be interested in passing on, do let me know.

Sunday 6 October 2013

Review - Get A Letter

Get A Letter

Get A Letter
Published by Tomy
Designed by... Committee... At a bar... During a lunch break... Probably
For 2 players, or 2 teams

There are some games you don't need to play in order to know you will hate them. You can just tell. You can look at the box, read the description, glance through the components... And you just know.

Get A Letter is one of those games.

My wife found it for me in a charity shop, and to be honest, I couldn't have been less excited. As a writer, I own more than my fair share of word games, and I don't find any of them particularly interesting. Scrabble, Boggle, Unspeakable Words... They're all okay, but they don't compare to romping through dungeons slaying dragons, or hunting down Dracula, or creating an empire. Because the thing is, I don't write books about words, I write stories. And I don't want games about words, I want games that create stories.

Put simply, there is something very mechanical and sterile about word games. Or in the case of Get A Letter, something electrical.

Oh, yes. Electrical.

This is a game made by Tomy, so it is mandatory that you need to put batteries in it somewhere.

Get A Letter Rules
The rules basically tell you how to change the batteries. Never a good sign.

In this case, the batteries go into a red button. A big, red button with an exclamation point on it. Like a warning sign.

Like a warning not to play this game.

Get A Letter big red button
Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do...

The button, as it turns out, houses a timer. When you press the button, you get a little countdown sound, and eventually a buzzer sounds to mark the end of a round. This is, obviously, a completely pointless gimmick. A gimmick being used to disguise the fact there isn't really much of a game here.

So, how does the game play, exactly?

Simple. That big red button has two "arms" coming out of it, which house all the letters of the alphabet on little flaps. At the beginning of the round, you draw a card, and printed on that card are different categories, like "Capital Cities." I think you can see where this is going... You select a category, and then you press the big, red warning button. The timer starts, and now you and your opponent have until the buzzer sounds to shout out words that match the category on the card. Whenever you shout out a word, you move the flap containing the starting letter of that word towards you. This scores you a point, and also denies your opponent the chance of using that letter. At the end of the round, you count up how many points you scored. Highest wins.

That's it.

Get A Letter cards
You can select the category you want from each card you draw.

The electronic timer, the big, red warning button, the plastic flaps... It's all window dressing. The game is simply shouting out words that match a category. You can play it with a deck of cards, scratch paper, and an egg timer. And there's no real structure. No rules. Just shouting, and pulling down the flaps as quickly as you can.

Of course I was going to hate this game.



I was sitting down with my wife the other evening for one of our regular, scheduled gaming evenings. We opened a bottle of wine, and we played a game of Forbidden Island. The water was lapping around our ankles as we breathlessly boarded the helicopter with all four artefacts; and I was once again reminded of why I play games: Those stories. Those moments where all looks lost, and then you pull out a win. Those games when you can taste the sea salt in the air, and hear the crashing of the waves as you race for the helicopter. Those times when all the mechanisms... all the words... melt away, and all you have left is the experience.

As we packed up the game, my wife suggested we should play Get A Letter so I could review it. I pointed out that I probably didn't need to play it in order to review it. She said we should play it anyway, and she had that look... You know the look. If you're married, and your wife has given you something you don't like but she wants you to use it... You know the look.

Get A Letter
The device... The alphabet is reversed on the back side of the flaps.

So we set up the game, fiddled about with the batteries, and drew the first card. The first category was something like "store departments." I shout the first thing that comes into my head. "Underpants." I flip the "u" flap, and then I start laughing. Because I'm incredibly immature, and I think underpants are funny. The whole round degenerates as my wife and I shout out ridiculous words that have only the most tenuous link to store departments. The buzzer sounds. The round ends.

We add up scores (I can't recall who won), we reset the flaps, and I draw a card to get a new category...

Something you can drop.


The timer ticks on mercilessly as my wife and I burst out laughing.

"The ball!"

"The kids off at the pool!"

It gets worse.

We score the round (I can't recall who won). Do we go again? Yeah. Why not? One more round won't hurt...

Something you can eat.

"My shorts!"

"Your words!"


Okay, it got old after about 15 minutes. But it was fun for about 15 minutes longer than I thought it would be.

And I guess, like in all good episodes of He-Man, at the end I learned a lesson.

I want games that tell stories, but I forgot the most important thing about any story: the characters.

Populate your gaming group with good characters, and any game has the potential to be greater than the sum of its parts.